The road to Hratch Kozibeyokian's hilltop studio is rutted, and a visitor's ascent is accompanied by a chorus of roosters and dogs. Any doubts about having misread the map, though, disappear as a pair of room-size patterned carpets come into view. Spread out on the pavement between the spacious house and workshops, they look like palatial welcome mats.
As owner of Kilim in West Hollywood's design district, Kozibeyokian was a well-known dealer and restorer of fine Oriental rugs. Ten years ago, he and his wife, Mira Assadourian, decided to devote themselves exclusively to restoration, selling the store and building Ko 'Z' Craft, their aerie in the San Fernando Valley community of Shadow Hills.
Rug weaving is one of the world's oldest arts. The Ko 'Z' Craft website, Ruglink.com, describes an example found in a Siberian tomb that has been carbon-dated to the 4th century BC. Wool woven and dyed in the traditional manner is meant to stand up to generations of hard wear, but damage does occur.
Here on the hilltop, the shades of red in one rug glow in the winter sun. Too many shades, Kozibeyokian says, pointing to a dark rectangle near the center. It's the footprint of a piece of furniture that sat in the same spot, blocking light, while the rest of the design faded. Like mattresses, he says, rugs should be rotated once a year.
Kilims are flat woven, but this relatively modern piece was created from individual strands of wool knotted onto the cross threads, or warps. Kozibeyokian pushes back a patch of the thick pile to show the deeper color beneath. Using "mechanical scissors," a rectangular tool that contains both a stationary and a rotating blade, his assistant will shave a small amount of pile off the entire rug, thus returning the whole to its original red. The process, he says, "is like trimming split ends on hair."
The shaver is high tech compared with most tools here. The adjacent rug was treated with nothing more than an application of vinegar mixed with water, a time-honored disinfectant.
Rugs run in Kozibeyokian's family. His grandfather traveled with a portable loom from village to village in Turkish Armenia and made rugs from yarn the villagers had spun. When wars disrupted the region, the family fled to Syria. There, his widowed grandmother joined other women weaving carpets in a refugee camp.
Kozibeyokian grew up in Lebanon, where his father was a tailor and furrier. In the 1970s, war again turned the family into emigrants. The family settled in Chicago but soon moved to L.A. at Kozibeyokian's urging. He was in his 20s, loved motorcycles and hated the cold.
If it were summer now, he says, many more rugs would cover the pavement, a terrace behind the workshop, and even the roof. In the winter, they take "only the emergency things, the things that cannot wait." Work, however, doesn't stop. In the high ceilinged office, where a modern computer sits by century-old rugs dated and signed in curving Armenian script, Assadourian and her sister ply their needles on opposite sides of a long table. The jobs can be as straightforward as chain stitching along the damaged edge to keep a rug from unraveling, or as painstaking as repairing tears in an antique Navajo piece.
For this project, brown, gray and white yarn that matches the traditional Two Grey Hills pattern was purchased from a tribal cooperative in the Four Corners region. Using a 6-inch needle with its tip filed to prevent snagging, pieces of untwisted wool are threaded alongside undamaged warp threads where they can be pressed flat. As they emerge in the space where the warp is missing, they're given a firm twist by a knowledgeable hand to make them stronger. Then they're woven in, flat again, on the other side of the hole.
Assadourian also grew up in Lebanon, the daughter of a goldsmith. When she was young, she knew Kozibeyokian as an actor in her older sister's theater group. Twenty years later, they re-met at a picnic.
"I was comfortable with her," Kozibeyokian says. "I thought, the more things we have in common, the more difficult it will be to break up." Adds Assadourian: "He's been a Scout, so he knows how to tie the knots really well."
The interweaving of their domestic and business life clearly suits them both. The homegrown walnuts and pomegranates on the coffee table aren't only an attractive decoration. In the spring when the weather warms, their husks and skins will be used to make a rich green dye. One secret of the couple's museum-quality repairs -- and of Kozibeyokian's custom rug designs -- is their ability to re-create the soft colors of carpets made before the introduction of commercial aniline dyes in the late 1800s.
Home-dyed wool in a subtle rainbow of shades fills an entire wall of one workshop. Each indigo-, madder- and onion skin-tinted skein is actually a mix of dozens of blues, roses or golden-browns. The variations -- essential to matching the fade patterns of older rugs -- are obtained by different strengths of dye and durations in the dye bath.
Most of the coloring operation takes place in outdoor vats kept simmering over a propane burner. For large quantities, though, they have an underground oven on the patio. Four feet deep, it can keep a large pot warm for a week -- time enough for the desired colors to emerge from the plant material and then permanently bond with the wool's core. The underground oven also roasts their Thanksgiving turkey.
A gallery contains pieces waiting for repair, including a lustrous silk rug with one corner now buzz-cut. "The dog ate my homework" may be a myth, but "the dog wrecked my carpet fringe" is a sad reality.
A more frequent culprit, Kozibeyokian says, is an improperly wielded vacuum cleaner. The machine always should be run parallel to the end of a rug, never across it. Even if the fringe survives, the beaters will fray knots holding the weaving in place.
Above the open window at the end of the gallery, twirling in the breeze, are a dozen fancy handkerchiefs, part of Assadourian's collection. Her husband removes a brilliant antique robe from a cabinet and helps her into it. Then he puts on another, also from Uzbekistan, pointing out the slub of the hand-woven silk and the intricacy of the ikat pattern, whose threads are tie-dyed before weaving. As they stand framed by the view of rocky hills and the citrus orchard they've planted, centuries and continents blur.
"It's not like any other business," Assadourian says. "There's some kind of pride in it. To bring an old piece back to life, to preserve it. That's something you cannot buy with money. You're rescuing things that otherwise would be gone forever."